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Clarice Starling and the Great Resignation

Why it’s so hard to quit the F-B-I—and TJ Maxx

Several years into the pandemic and The Great Resignation—or The Great Rethink, or whatever we’re calling it now—I can’t help but think about Clarice Starling. If the fictional agent was real and still in the FBI, would she finally say enough is enough already and quit? And should we think about her in the same way in 2022 as we did in 1990 when Silence of the Lambs hit our movie screens?

Clarice is what many of us are or have been: The Corporate Final Girl or Boy, surviving the job no matter what. You don’t go from sticky, tedious fumblings in the backseats of cars all the way to the F-B-I only to bounce when the going gets tough. Not with all that ambition, all of those lambs.

But maybe, Clarice, it’s time. And just maybe, Doctor Lecter was right: You need to get more fun out of life.

Don’t we all?

The Orphan

Close up of a young Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs, looking over her deceased father as he lays in his coffin

Fans know Clarice’s biography from Silence of the Lambs. Her mother died when she was 11, making her sheriff father her “whole world.” When he dies following a gunshot wound, Clarice is sent to live on her cousin’s sheep-and-horses ranch. There, she witnesses the slaughtering of the spring lambs. Horrified at their plight, she tries to save one, running with its heavy body in the cold, dark night until she’s picked up by a less paternal sheriff. She then lives at an orphanage in Bozeman, Montana.

After Clarice comes of age, she heads to the rigors of UVA, then the FBI Academy, intelligence, ambition, and a killer survival instinct intact. Still a student, she apprehends Jame Gumb AKA John Grant AKA Louis Friend AKA the skin-stealing Buffalo Bill.

In addition to being a rockstar, Clarice is still an orphan, a young woman living with trauma, and a Deep Roller (more on that later). Over time, that makes it hard to let go of anything when you’ve already lost so much.

The Great Resignation

Most of us become neither FBI agents nor psychopathic couturiers. We’re office workers. We slave away in the retail and service industries. We work for small companies, family-owned businesses, and major corporations—or run them ourselves. We’re white-collar professionals or have a side hustle, maybe many.

We’ve struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic, and collectively, we’re still kind of pissed.

The Great Resignation is the American worker’s F*ck You to corporate America. Its logo is an extended middle finger and depending on when you were born, its motto:

Or anything from Office Space.

Since last winter, millions have quit their jobs monthly with record highs of 4.5 million in November 2021 and March 2022. And while many simply left for something better versus leaving the workforce altogether, the overall trend reflects a mass reconsideration of where, why, and how we work—and how much it’s all supposed to matter.

It took a pandemic to remind us how bad things had gotten, to stop and ask ourselves if our lives resemble anything like what we want, and how our histories can make it hard to be happy.

Bowels In, If You Please

Inspector Pazzi, hanging in shadows from a building in Florence, Italy, a victim of Hannibal Lector in the film Hannibal

I share some of Clarice’s biography, and the average quitter’s. The death of my parents in my late teens forced me to leave my home. And while that home was traumatic, learning how to survive on my own and be a breadwinner was just as hard. When I’m feeling really sh*tty, I ask myself: What in my background prepared me for this? Why is this my f*cking fate? In response, I learned something else, too: how to work hard.

I wasn’t always right, but I was smart. College and some career success taught me that I would often be one of the smartest and dumbest humans in any room. That’s how Enron went down. Rather than go down in ignominy or burn out so badly I can never Phoenix my way back, I quit.

In March 2021 on the strength of a single, short-term project, I left the traditional workforce for full-time self-employment. If the choice is bowels in or bowels out, like Inspector Pazzi’s, I’d rather make it myself.

Clarice’s Capacity for Happiness

A shot of Clarice Starling from behind, sitting in a windowed room with her boss and a Justice official

Clarice’s choices are less gutting than Pazzi’s, but not by much. After 10 years as a Special Agent, she’s under a different kind of knife. Hannibal opens with Clarice fresh off a botched raid, orchestrated by her superiors and summoned to a boy’s club boardroom table.

Agent: Look, we’re here to help you, Starling. It’s going to be a hell of a lot harder to do with a combative attitude.

Clarice: May I speak freely, Mr. Pearsall? Your agency called this office to get me assigned to help you on this raid. I tried to do that. I clearly expressed my judgement and was ignored. And now a good agent and a friend is dead.

Much to the group’s resentment, the meeting is stopped. Like the serial killers they hunt, the government bros are out for not only blood but shame. A call from Mason Verger puts Clarice back on Lecter’s case (goody-goody), moving from one problematic guru to another.

Krendler: It’s a good deal for you, Starling. You can’t pretend it isn’t. You get to go back on a celebrated case. I’ll take care of the media for your Drumgo killing. Everyone’s gonna be happy.

Clarice: I’m not happy.

Krendler: Well, maybe you’re incapable of being happy.

Clarice: Mr. Krendler, when you’re out on the street, you know you might take a bullet in the line of duty. You accept it or you get out. You live with it. What you don’t expect or accept is taking one in the back in your boss’s office for doing your job exactly as they’ve taught you. THAT makes you unhappy.

 Pearsall: Of course, you’re right, Starling. But it doesn’t really change anything.

“It changes everything. It changes me,” Clarice responds.

Avoid the Well

Downward shot of Catherine Martin from Silence of the Lambs, held captive in a well and holding a white dog

We’ve changed, too. The Great Resignation isn’t a bunch of people who got used to them stimulus checks and don’t wanna work no more. That fake largesse ended long ago.

Whatever America is or isn’t, we are clearly a nation of hardworking masochists. Our European counterparts send spartan out-of-office messages that span weeks. In the U.S., we explain that we’ll get back to you as soon as we’re out of surgery.

And for what?

Your job should not perpetuate PTSD. Try as we might to leave our personal sh*t at home, our workplaces are a minefield of fellow suffers. And we’re all doing the job exactly as they’ve told us. We learned not to quit no matter what by a string of Lecters, Gumbs, Krendlers, and Vergers.

It took the pandemic for us to take our power back, but we’re not out of our basement wells just yet. If our newfound empowerment doesn’t stick, the corporate horror franchises represented by the Metas, McKinseys, and Goldmans of the world will keep pumping out sequels. We’re hired and fired in droves. Why? Because companies can’t stop squeezing us for the tiniest bit of profit. (Stop. If you loved me, you’d stop.)

But they simply don’t know how, and we can’t keep lining up for the slaughter. Realize this too late—whether you work for TJ Maxx or TD Ameritrade—and we’ll all end up bargaining for our existential lives with a Bichon Frisé at the bottom of a well with some chicken wings.

Quiet Quitting

Nearly 25 years into my own career, I finally realized what all employers are selling: the illusion of security. I knew that a line could be drawn through my name at any time and it would be over. I got tired of toxic situations and toxic bosses, including one gaslighting sadist who’d somehow built a career as a mental health professional.

At that point, I did something I thought I’d never do. I stopped working and caring more than I needed to. Today it would be called quiet quitting. And not only did no one notice, but I also got raises, bonuses, and promotions. After a while, even that approach wore off. When we prioritize work-life balance, the Work part still has to mean something. It’s why I’ve staged my own Great Resignation more than once and with no job lined up. I’m no quitter, until I am.

The Price of Protecting the Sheep

The character Barney from Hannibal, stooped over his patio door, picking up a dead pigeon

If Starling could quit, she’d be in a different place than where Hannibal ends. Sticking to the novel, Clarice left the FBI to globetrot with Lecter. Whether this was by free will or under the control of mind-altering drugs, I’m not sure.

Still, there are plenty of reasons why Clarice wouldn’t have Great Resignation-ed.

She’s invested way too much in the FBI. She has 10 years of specialized training. She’s good at her job and she’s committed, unlike the masters she serves.

Lecter: You fell in love with the bureau, the institution, only to discover after giving it everything you’ve got, that it does not love you back. That in fact, it resents you. Resents you more than the husband and children you gave up to it. Why is that you think?…Well, isn’t it clear? You serve the idea of order, Clarice. They don’t. You believe in the oath that you took. They don’t. You feel it is your duty to protect the sheep. They don’t.

In short, she’s no quitter. From a too-early age, Clarice experiences trauma that makes it hard to trust and even harder to throw in the towel.

That’s especially true when you’re a Deep Roller:

Clarice: What’d he say about me, late at night?

Barney: He was talking about inherited, hardwired behavior. He was using genetics and roller pigeons as an example. They fly way up in the air, roll over backwards in a display, falling toward the ground.

Lector (on tape:) There are shallow rollers and there are deep rollers. You can’t breed two deep rollers or their young, their offspring, will roll all the way down, hit, and die. Agent Starling is a deep roller, Barney. Let us hope one of her parents was not.

The Importance of Being (Not-So) Earnest

Another name for Deep Roller is being “Earnest.” William James, pragmatic philosopher and a founder of modern psychology, described earnestness as a “[w]illingness to live with energy, though energy bring pain. The pain may be pain to other people or pain to one’s self—it makes little difference…”

They are both sides of the same greasy coin. That’s why working a job you hate locks you in fight mode every moment you stay. James noted that Earnestness can bring on “the strenuous mood,” adding: “For when the strenuous mood is on one, the aim is to break something, no matter whose or what.”

The Desire to Break Things on an Epic Scale may be a better name for The Great Resignation, Great Rethink, or Great Regret. Now with inflation, layoffs, and a possible recession, it’s a good time to ask: How we doin’?

Or as Hannibal might put it, how are we feeling about the masters we serve—our careers, such as they are, and our lives?

Confessions of a Lapsed Clarice

With more than a little regret, I’ve changed how I feel about Clarice. I’m not as earnest as I used to be. These days, I largely save my fight for personal versus professional causes. My Buffalo Bill woman’s suit is worn out. I traded it for black, horror movie T-shirts and a focus on how I work versus what I achieve.

Nearly two years into self-employment, I had no idea how much this Deep Roller needed to define my own destiny. Joys, fears, and mysteries intermingle daily—and that is the kind of Great Whatever I’m here for.

These questions are just as much yours as mine. How will you invest the one-of-a-kindness that is you? As David Copperfield proclaims in Charles Dicken’s novel of the same name: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Resignation: Epilogue

Close up of a letter in a white envelope on a desk among other papers with the name Clarice written in script

How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asks Mike in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

“Two ways,” he answers. “Gradually, then suddenly.”

After years of feeling bankrupted by our jobs, the pandemic reminded us we’ve been losing ourselves little by little. Just like the cocaine that disappears from basement FBI labs. COVID has to change us—permanently, for the better—or it’s all been for nothing. We also have to decide what that change means. Next step? Quit what doesn’t work for us anymore (jobs or otherwise) and probably hasn’t for a very long time.

For the resignation letter, may I suggest a custom linen paper, infused with raw ambergris, Tennessee lavender, and a trace of fleece that reads:

We quit.

If not our jobs, then the versions of ourselves that no longer work.

Because all we need to remind us of our courage and incorruptibility

is a mirror.



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Written by Laura Beerman

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